Whether it is kicking a soccer ball, a rugby ball or an Australian rules football, kicking is what Australians grow up doing in the parks and fields of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.
In recent years, the ability to kick — and kick very well — has resulted in more and more Australians traveling nearly 10,000 miles to the United States to perform as punters with major college football programs. A few have advanced to the National Football League.
The ambition of a former punter, social media and word of mouth combined to construct this pipeline that has been flowing freely the past few years, providing U.S. college coaches with top-shelf talent. Nathan Chapman spent eight seasons as an Australian rules football player. In 2004, thanks to connections that led to then-Green Bay executive John Dorsey, he signed a contract to attend training camp with the Packers.
Chapman never punted in a regular-season game. He bounced around from one tryout to another attempting to keep his hopes for an NFL career alive. His lack of formal training — he didn’t attend college in the U.S. — hurt him in preparing for the demands and nuances of American football.
What he did, though, was use his experience as a platform to found Prokick Australia in 2007.
“I learned a lot of things from a lot of mistakes that I made,” he said of his experience trying to land with an NFL team. “I learned how to go about the training and anything having to do with the process.”
He felt he could, with time, impart his lessons and develop what he considered a strong talent base in Australia into players that could compete, and thrive, in the U.S.
[beauty_quote quote='“I learned a lot of things from a lot of mistakes that I made. I learned how to go about the training and anything having to do with the process.” - Prokick Australia founder Nathan Chapman']
"I loved the game,” said Chapman, who serves as Prokick’s punting coach as well as its point man. “I still wanted to be in the sport, and I felt that I could coach it. So, it was a case of saying, ‘Hey, I know that we have loads and loads of great kickers and talented athletes here. Let’s help them get across (the ocean) and make sure we do it the right way. Let’s let the Americans know that we are serious and let’s let the Australians know how serious it is.’”
When he trained his first players in 2008, college football was largely foreign in Australia. In fact, Chapman said the number of Aussie punters and kickers in the United States at that time could “be counted on one hand.” To help publicize his program, Chapman adopted a grassroots approach, sending out emails, letters and fliers.
Four players came out.
“It was quite the process,” he said. “No one knew about college football. Not everyone was jumping at the bit to get involved, so we had to create the awareness.”
While it would take a few years for momentum to build, what helped greatly was that three of those first four players went on to U.S. colleges. One of them, Jordan Berry, who attended Eastern Kentucky University, is in his fourth season punting for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Once we started, there was no turning back,” said Chapman, who now has a staff and who relies solely on social media for the program’s exposure. “We got right into it; we got some results. More (players who attended Prokick) could be seen on TV, and, all of a sudden, more people started to know about us.”
[beauty_quote quote='“Between training and kicking, we try to replicate life in college football and the NFL, so they are physically and mentally ready (when the time comes to play in the U.S.)" - Prokick Australia founder Nathan Chapman']
Players spend six to 15 months under Chapman and his staff’s tutelage learning to kick the American football — Chapman said 95 percent of his trainees had never done that previously — what to expect at American universities and colleges on and off the field and proper conditioning. Through mid-October, Chapman reported 35 players had come through the program in 2018.
“Between training and kicking, we try to replicate life in college football and the NFL, so they are physically and mentally ready (when the time comes to play in the U.S.),” he said.
Chapman said more than 75 players who have taken part in the program have earned scholarships at U.S. colleges. He requires aspiring punters to consistently average 45 yards and have a hang time of 4.5 seconds in order to be accepted into the program.
“If you can do that, you are in pretty good shape,” he said of the requirements. “That’s a nice kick. Then, it’s a matter of how long it takes us to make somebody consistent at it.”
Video highlights of Prokick alumni uploaded to social media forums such as Facebook prove the best form of advertising these days. It is also a way for talent to get noticed.
Trent Schneider posted a video to Facebook of him punting, which a friend viewed. The friend contacted Schneider and provided him with a Prokick email address. Soon, he was training with Chapman and John Smith, a member on Chapman’s staff who teaches kicking. About 10 percent of those coming through Prokick are trained in kicking, which is more specialized than punting.
A 28-year-old former construction worker, Schneider is in his first season punting — he has also handled kickoffs — for the University of South Florida. He first came to the United States in 2016 to attend Santa Barbara Community College, with which Chapman had established a connection. Australian punters have moved on from the community college to Football Bowl Subdivision programs each of the past few years.
It was at SBCC that Schneider launched his collegiate career and received his Associates degree before moving to USF.
“I did construction right out of high school and did that for like 7½ years and then decided to kick the football,” he said. “Ever since I was a little kid, I had dreams of playing high level sports. So, the opportunity came. I wasn’t getting any younger and I decided, ‘Why not?’ I don’t regret it.”
When he was coaching at Texas, current USF coach Charlie Strong had an Australian punter named Michael Dickson, who is a member of the Seattle Seahawks and a Prokick alumnus. Having had a line of communication with Chapman made life much easier when it came time for Strong to fill a void at USF. A void Schneider filled.
“He’s one of those guys where if you develop a relationship with him, he will keep sending you a punter,” said Strong of Chapman. “With Schneider, that’s how we were able to find out about him.”
Australian punters are not just landing jobs at major-college programs. They are also excelling. In fact, each of the last five winners of the Ray Guy Award, named after the Oakland Raiders hall-of-famer and given to the nation’s top punter, are from Down Under. That includes Dickson, last year’s winner.
Since the award’s inception in 2000, three two-time winners have been named. One is Australian Tom Hackett, who won the award in 2014 and 2015.
Hackett was among the first 10 or so players to attend Prokick. He was a walk-on at Utah, where he was a 20-year-old freshman in 2012 and went on scholarship prior to the following season. He completed his career with the Utes in 2015 ranked second all-time in school history for career punting average at 45.2.
[beauty_quote quote='“Ever since I was a little kid, I had dreams of playing high level sports. So, the opportunity came. I wasn’t getting any younger and I decided, ‘Why not?’ I don’t regret it.” - Prokick Australia graduate and University of South Florida punter Trent Schneider']
After being cut by the Jets prior to the 2016 preseason, he founded Tom Hackett Punting, which enables him to work with high school kids attempting to make it to the next level. He also serves as a radio sideline reporter at Utes games.
“American football is growing (in Australia),” he said. “The public cares more now because they can see the success guys are having in the (United) States. The pipeline that Prokick Australia has created has played a role in people caring more about American football.”
The level of success that Hackett, who played Australian rules football at college in Melbourne, and punters from Australia had or are enjoying is eye-opening given they did not grow up kicking an American football, which has a more streamlined design and less drag than its foreign counterpart.
Because Australians have been participating in sports that require kicking skills since a young age, Hackett said he believes they have a leg up on many American youths who participate in the many sports that do not require that skill set.
“If you think about how many times an Australian kid has kicked a ball, no matter the size or the shape of it, the muscles in your legs have developed to a much greater extent than maybe somebody in America who grew up playing baseball (or other sports that do not require kicking),” said Hackett, who noted that American youths playing football start out at other positions and generally do not become specialized in punting or kicking until their teen years. “That’s probably the advantage. More often than not, I have noticed that kids that grew up kicking a ball, no matter the shape or size, have a far greater advantage over somebody that didn’t pick it up until 10, 11 or 12 years of age. Australians have been kicking since 3 or 4.”
Mitch Wishnowsky was a reserve for Perth of the Australian Football League in 2012. He didn’t finish high school and, with no personal connection to Hackett, succeeded him at Utah in 2016, when he won the Ray Guy Award after averaging 47.7 yards per punt.
A couple of years following his stint with Perth, Wishnowsky was “messing around with friends in a park kicking an American football” when he met somebody who was friends with Prokick’s Smith.
[beauty_quote quote='“If you think about how many times an Australian kid has kicked a ball, no matter the size or the shape of it, the muscles in your legs have developed to a much greater extent than maybe somebody in America who grew up playing baseball (or other sports that do not require kicking). That’s probably the advantage. More often than not, I have noticed that kids that grew up kicking a ball, no matter the shape or size, have a far greater advantage over somebody that didn’t pick it up until 10, 11 or 12 years of age. Australians have been kicking since 3 or 4.” - Two-time Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett']
That got the wheels rolling on a career that saw him land at SBCC, where, like Schneider, he got his associate’s degree. Wishnowsky is a senior at Utah in 2018 with a very good chance of being selected in April’s NFL draft.
His biggest adjustment to the American game was developing the right touch in order to properly place punts.
“The big thing was finding that happy medium where you can’t kick it too far,” he said. “In (American) football, you have to put it higher, and it’s a perfect sort of game. If you kick it a bit too far you can outkick your coverage and get a (punt return for a) touchdown go against you. I think with stuff like that, instead of just putting your foot through it and kicking it as far as you can, you have to be a bit more careful.”
The ability to consistently kick effectively is what U.S. college coaches are looking for. After all, the pipeline can’t continue to flow unless Chapman is developing punters to the liking of coaches in need.
“We like to think that the product we (develop) is good,” said Chapman. “If we don’t do a good job coaches aren’t going to come back to us and I won’t have a job. So, we have to do a good job.”
Tom Layberger has spent more than 25 years as a writer, editor and web producer for various media outlets. Tom, who resides in Tampa, is a graduate of the University of South Florida. Follow him on Twitter @TomLay810